Typing at the Speed of Thought

Typing at the Speed of Thought

Let's get this out of the way: it's unlikely that your typing speed is holding you back.

I was never a great typist. My parents taught me to touch type pretty early on, and by 3rd grade I identified as a bit of a computer guy. Still, I never took that next step in keyboard mastery and eventually fell behind my other nerdy friends. My typing speed was slow, my confidence typing the number row was poor, and every time I tried to push my speed I just ended up making more mistakes. Even after being hired as a professional touch typist (software engineer), my typing skills stayed about where I had left them in 6th grade. I was a 60 word-per-minute kind of guy, and I was perfectly fine with that life.

Fast forward a few years. I went out and bought my first mechanical keyboard to help with my hand health in 2017, and soon enough my YouTube recommended section was full of custom mechanical keyboard videos. Sometime in late 2019 I gave in and watched one: TaehaTypes building Tfue's multi-thousand dollar keyboard. The keyboard was beautiful and even sounded like a custom device, but it was the typing test at the end that I kept coming back to: as Nathan made mistakes and yelled "redo! redo!", I marveled at how casually he threw away 120wpm typing tests.

The video that made custom mechanical keyboards (almost) mainstream.

I always knew that people typed faster than I did, but I'd never thought to look at how big the gap was. My typing speeds had been 50 to 60 words per minute for the last decade or more, and I had just witnessed someone casually churn out typing speeds twice my own. What was I missing out on? Surely I could get more done if I could type faster. Should I be embarrassed at my typing speed? I decided to hop on TypeRacer to see where I stood.

Faster is better

This has to be true, right? The faster you can type, the more you can get on the page in a given amount of time. The more you get down, the more work you've done, and the more productive you were. Repeat day after day and you become a person who gets more done in less time.

As is often the case with self improvement projects, reality is more complicated. While I quickly improved my typing test scores to the low-70s, I wasn't actually typing any faster in real life. If I was, it wasn't showing in my total output. I played around with other tools like MonkeyType and keybr to see which one provided the best training. I ended up liking the MonkeyType UI so much I decided to make an account to track my progress.

Like all good graphs, mine goes up and to the right.
My typing test history on MonkeyType. Still not very fast.

I practiced every day. I even included it in my first set of goals for the new year:

I will take at least one typing test every work day for the next 6 weeks.

Like most goals, mine were pretty ambitious at the beginning. Seeing people on YouTube churn out 190+wpm typing tests provided unrealistic expectations. Maybe I would be able to type fast enough to be the de-facto notetaker for work meetings, or maybe I could type so quickly that I could be the go-to person when some code needed to be changed quickly. The dream was big.

But did it really matter? I've had coworkers who could type like the wind and also had coworkers who typed in the "hunt and peck" style with 2 fingers. While most software engineers touch type, those who don't produce the same quantity and quality of code. Typing speed isn't everything, but when does it become a problem?

Speed limits

It turns out there is only one typing speed that matters: the typing speed that lets you write faster than the rate at which you lose track of the information you need to write down.

If you can reliably get all the thoughts in your head onto the page, you don't need to type any faster. If you find yourself always fighting your memory to keep an idea in place long enough to finish writing it, or you find that a single typo is enough to throw off your train of thought, you should probably practice your typing.

It's unfortunate that I can't give you a specific speed that will be good enough for you because everyone is different. I have a very haphazard typing style: everything in my head gets put on the page somewhere and I clean it up later. Other people like to fully form ideas in the their heads before even starting to write. If I learn to type 20% faster, I might get 20% more of my ideas on the page. If the other person learns to type faster, they may see no change in output because their ideas are all fully formed before hitting the page.

As noted by Typing.com, very few professions benefit directly from being able to type faster, and even then there are limits. People in assistant or word processor roles may need to be able to type quite quickly and accurately, but even that has its limits: around 90 words per minute seems to be about as fast as you'll ever need to type. Of course, it's much easier to transcribe 100 words per minute if your maximum speed is 150 words per minute, but you'll rarely need to type that fast.

Even my most urgent and drawn out thoughts are rarely limited by my typing speed, and that was true even when I was typing like a snail in college. Most thoughts don't need to be written down, and those that should be written down are often worth thinking about for a little bit after getting them out of your head. The self help gurus on the internet may tell you that you need to improve your typing speed to get more productive, but I've never heard anyone say that they couldn't type fast enough to get their thought out.

The biggest issue is that we all slow down when we have to come up with our own words. Typing tests are easy because we just read off the words to type and then type them. Writing blog posts or company memos is much harder. While writing this blog post, I'll mostly write at the speed that I would speak. This way I know if my words sound natural and my sentences flow together well, but it comes at a pretty big wpm cost. To make matters worse, I don't always know what I'm going to write next! I'll scroll around to make sure I'm not repeating myself. I'll rewrite a sentence a couple of times until I find the wording I prefer. My final wpm will probably be around 20 for this post. Those blistering typing test times don't matter if I have to spend all my time thinking about what to write next.

All about confidence

It was a little bit disappointing to write this post because I still wanted to believe that typing faster would help me get more done. I can finally get rid of that little voice in the back of my head telling me to practice typing more often. Will I stop taking typing tests then? No, I find them fun. But I can stop thinking about them as training and enjoy them as a game instead.

That isn't to say typing tests haven't influenced how I type. I'm far more confident in my keystrokes now that I was only 2 months ago. I feel like I'm typing faster and more accurately, even if my productivity hasn't changed in any measurable way. This blog may not exist without those typing tests, as a post of this length may have been too intimidating before.

But I also have a new appreciation for the hunt-and-peck typists of the world. I think you do need to be familiar with your keyboard, don't get me wrong, but you don't have to be a great typist to be good at your job even if it involves sitting at a computer and using your keyboard all day. If you're good enough at the other things, no one is going to notice your typing speed. You'll put out the same quantity and quality of work as the 150wpm typist, you'll just have a different way of getting there.